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Sermon on the Mount

In the 1993 hit Groundhog Day, Bill Murray played a show-biz smartass who grew into a human being. Murray added a core of warmth and romance to his comic arsenal without losing his zinging wit and crack-up irony, and he's kept that progress going, even in piddling vehicles such as The Man Who Knew Too Little (1997) and, now, Rushmore. Watching Murray try to ground this jejune fantasy is like watching Keith Olbermann maintain his intellectual stamina when he covered the Starr investigation for The Big Show and White House in Crisis on MSNBC. Like Olbermann, Murray proves that what's most amusing and--yes--cleansing in the face of absurdity is the free play of intelligence.

For years Murray was the screen's most accomplished put-on artist, charging hilarious vehicles like Stripes (1981) with his own iconoclastic zaniness. Now the put-on artist has become a put-in artist, filling out the thinnest comic outlines with humorous grace notes and hints of submerged feelings. He used to take over movies with careening zigzag moves. These days he's more apt to lean back and take the measure of lunatic situations--albeit with his own bent yardstick. His ambiguous facial expressions are ticklish and suggestive; he involves an audience in all his wayward musings. In past films, one of his specialties has been playing zany con men; he now seems to give everyone around him genuine confidence. And no one ever needed it more than the makers of Rushmore, a determinedly offbeat youth movie that comes to life only when Murray is on screen. If Murray can't turn the film into a peak of comedy, he at least saves it from the pits.

After a Gen X colleague of mine at a Seattle weekly saw Bottle Rocket, the 1996 film by the creators of Rushmore, he told me it was the sole recent movie about guys in their early twenties that captured their sense of possibility. What do you say to a statement like that when the film turns out to be a sad-sack caper comedy? As far as I can tell, director Wes Anderson and his co-writer Owen Wilson sell "the possible" because they don't have that much "actual" to offer. Bottle Rocket pushed the flimsy conceit of suburban kids trying to become professional thieves in an effort to order their unhinged lives. It got by--barely--on freshness and attitude.

Rushmore feels like a regression. It's about fifteen-year-old Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), who devotes every ounce of his being to a posh educational institution named Rushmore Academy. It's not studies that magnetize him. It's his idea of the place as its own solar system, where he can join (or found) clubs about anything under the sun, from debating to the fine points of dodge ball. Any youngster or adolescent can fall prey to the illusion that school is the be-all and end-all of existence, especially a school that permits anything, including beekeeping. But Max is the only one who buys into that concept in this movie. He isn't a character, he's a masochistic construct: When it comes to school spirit, he's the buffoon who would be king. What's worse, the film aims to be empowering as well as slapstick-poignant. So Max uses his one semi-authentic talent--amateur theatrics--to get the recognition he wants and make everyone he likes happy. This movie peters out like a cozy, nothing daydream.

Murray enters the picture as local tycoon Herman Blume, who tries to inspire scholarship students like Max to overtake rich kids by any means necessary. Max thinks Herman is the greatest--and Herman thinks Max has his act together. We soon discover that Herman is a hapless husband and the father of moronic twins, while Max is failing academically. There is comic potential to the push-pull attraction between this conked-out captain of industry and this gung-ho sergeant of prep school. And I did enjoy watching Herman and Max size each other up. (Thanks to the magic of Murray's performance, Herman appears to be doing that even when he's not with Max.) Max has his idealized vision of Rushmore to sustain him, while Herman has a maximum midlife crisis.

Still, not even Murray can keep the picture afloat while Max tries to pursue his crush on an attractive--and widowed--first-grade teacher (Olivia Williams). After the premiere of Max's stage version of Serpico, Herman takes the boy, the teacher and a doctor friend of hers out to dinner; heady with triumph and alcohol, Max comes on to the teacher and insults her friend. Whether it's a conscious echo or a coincidence, it plays like a failed satiric riff on the moment in My Left Foot when Christy Brown, disastrously, declared his love for his female doctor at a restaurant. Film critic Pauline Kael wrote that the My Left Foot moment was perhaps "the most emotionally wrenching scene I've ever experienced at the movies." All we get in Rushmore is the irritating adolescent whimsy of Max puffing out his chest because he's written a "hit play" and his dubbing the doctor a nurse because he's dressed in his workday drabs. ("They're OR scrubs," the doc protests. "Oh, are they?" Max responds.) Elsewhere in the film, Schwartzman's Max has a workable poker face, and Williams is appealing as the teacher. This dinner scene, though, is an embarrassment--and a precursor of many annoyances to come.

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